Parashat Bechukotai includes the section commonly called the “tokheicha,” which describes the harsh punishments that God warns will befall Benei Yisrael should they breach their covenant with Him. Included in these warnings is the verse, “Va-hashimoti et mikdesheikhem” – that God will destroy the Beit Ha-mikdash, making it “desolate.” The word “va-hashimoti” is the verb form of the noun “shemama” – “desolation,” referring to making an inhabited area desolate and empty.
A mysterious story is told of one the early Chassidic masters, the Maggid of Kozhnitz, who once read this verse and then proclaimed, “I wish that we all live to see the fulfillment of this verse!” The Maggid somehow saw in this verse not just a warning of the Temple’s destruction, but also an allusion to some exalted achievement to which we ought to aspire.
A later Chassidic figure, Rav Yehoshua of Dzikov, in Ateret Yehoshua, speculates as to the possible meaning of the Maggid’s enigmatic remark. He suggests that the desolation of the site of the Temple can be seen as a metaphor for a person’s feeling of “desolation” regarding his own, inner “Mikdash.” The exalted level of which the Maggid spoke, the Ateret Yehoshua writes, is the level where a person recognizes his own “desolation,” that this “Beit Ha-mikdash” is not fully built. Most people tend to feel content with their level of religious devotion, and do not strive for higher standards of achievement. The Maggid of Kozhnitz subtly bemoaned this tendency, teaching that we should ideally feel a sense of “shemama,” that our “Temples” are still “desolate,” as we have much more to achieve.
We might add that just prior to this warning of the destruction of the Temple, the Torah warns of the destruction of Benei Yisrael’s cities: “Ve-natati et areikhem chorba.” This first warning speaks of the loss of the people’s personal property, their homes and other material possessions, whereas the second speaks of the loss of their spiritual center, the Beit Ha-mikdash. With this in mind, we might perhaps understand more clearly the Maggid’s intent. We naturally tend to feel pain and anguish upon losing material possessions, but less so when we lose our “Mikdash,” our opportunities for spiritual growth and service of God, or when we decline in our level of observance. The exalted level mysteriously mentioned by the Maggid might be the level at which we feel as pained and forlorn upon experiencing spiritual loss as we feel after suffering material loss. If a person feels as “desolate” – broken and anguished – after losing his “Mikdash,” his spiritual standing, as he does after losing his “cities” – his material blessings – then this is truly something to admire.
If so, then the Maggid here is teaching is of the need for proper prioritization, to feel as concerned about our religious needs as we are about our material needs, and to afford the former at least the same level of importance and urgency as we afford the latter.